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A love stronger than our fears

, professor of history

How might Christians look on the world differently, if we actually – literally – believed that God’s love was indeed stronger than our fears? What would happen if we assumed that our allegiance to God, our identity with Christ and our commitment to the church would call us to respond to the world’s pain differently than our non-Christian neighbors? In the face of violence, are there any options open to the Christian believer other than the default impulse toward patriotic unity and a steely determination to exact “an eye for an eye”?

Choosing Against War: A Christian View is an effort to explore such a possibility. At one level, it is a straightforward argument that the gospel of Jesus Christ should lead all Christians to renounce violence and to love all human beings, including our enemies, with the same generous love that God has shown to us. At an even deeper level, it is an invitation to live more fully and joyfully in the Christian conviction that “God’s love is stronger than our fears.”

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” As the 20th century came to a close, these lines from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats captured with apt precision the cultural mood of our time.
By any reckoning, the century just past was filled with enough “passionate intensity” to make it one of the bloodiest epochs in all of human history. Looking back now, Yeats’ worried gaze on the future was seemingly well founded: the 20th century has indeed been awash in a “blood-dimmed tide,” as he wrote further in the poem.

At the same time, Yeats’ poem reveals still another, equally troubling insight about the nature of modern culture. Not only is it true that “the worst are full of passionate intensity,” but, as he noted with prescience, “the best lack all conviction.”

We live, it seems, in the grip of a profound paradox. Even as the “passionate intensity” of ideologues, dictators, fundamentalists and terrorists has led to the violent death of millions of people, the 20th century also witnessed a spiritual and intellectual crisis of conviction that has cast doubt on the very moral frameworks that should have been challenging the violence of our age.
What started as a well-intended critique of power in the Enlightenment tradition of systematic doubt, slowly took on a life of its own in the last half of the 20th century in the form of Postmodernism. Captivated by the seductive logic of deconstructionism, thoughtful people have found it increasingly difficult to express any conviction about Truth. Thinking it to be a generosity of spirit, some of the “very best” among us “lack all conviction” and have become paralyzed into passivity, incapable of making moral judgments or discerning the difference between good and evil.

Thus, for most modern people, the options sketched by Yeats seem equally foreboding –either the callous and violent intensity of passionate belief or the banal etiquette of an accommodating relativism; either the white-knuckled fundamentalism of the warrior or the passive disengagement from all moral judgments of the sophisticated scholar.

I suggest that there is a third option. In contrast to most postmodern thinkers, I wish to describe a universe created by God who actively invites human beings into relationships of trust and intimacy. It is a universe driven ultimately not by coercion and fear, but by the power of love. For this reason, those who are suspicious of all claims about Truth need not be afraid that this assertion is one more power-move. Indeed, the very essence of the good news of the Christian gospel is that our God is a noncoercive God who invites rather than compels. The Jesus we claim as Lord came to us in the form of a servant, taught an ethic of vulnerability and compassion and allowed himself to be killed rather than to take up the sword and defend the truth with violence.

Here in the space created by Christ’s way of peace and reconciliation we find a place to stand that succumbs neither to the violence of “passionate intensity” nor the vapid relativism of the “absence of convictions.”

The good news of the gospel is that God loved us even though we were not worthy of that love, “while we were still enemies of God,” and, in Christ, offered the free gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. This part is familiar. But we don’t fully claim the gospel as good news unless we recognize that those who have received God’s gracious, undeserved gift of love will inevitably seek to express that same love to others, including (indeed, especially) our enemies.

If this is the Christ that we claim as our Savior – a nonviolent, compassionate, gracious Lord – then we can witness to that Truth in both confidence and humility. Our tone will be invitational, but not combative; testimonial, but not argumentative; joyful, but not defensive; inclusive, but not relativistic.

1. In God We Trust: Made in the image of God, we are nonetheless endowed with the freedom to reject that part of our nature and to pursue a way of life dedicated to defending the self by relying on our own energy and strength. A Christian worldview recognizes this deep impulse in human beings toward self-reliance, as well as the fear that is generated when humans acknowledge their own finitude and mortality. Christian faith begins with a clear recognition of our vulnerability and dependence. Faith is a response to God’s invitation to trust in Him alone and to acknowledge that every moment of our lives is shaped by His mercy and sustaining love.

2. Jesus is Lord: In Jesus Christ, the world finds the fullest expression of God’s character. Here, too, we find the fullest expression of Shalom, a model of how human beings are to live in harmony with God, with each other, and with the natural world. Since Jesus is God Incarnate, he comes to us as Lord of the entire world, not just a Lord over myself, my family, my denomination or my nation. Moreover, Jesus comes to us as a Lord over the principalities and powers of evil and hatred and destruction and, indeed, death itself. Thus, to proclaim Jesus as Lord is to participate in a reality that transcends the bonds of society and politics, and that frees us from the human bondage of coercion and violence. To proclaim Jesus as Lord is to live in the light of the resurrection, knowing that death does not have the final world.

3. The church is our first family: Though a Christian’s deepest identity is rooted in a transcendent reality, we do continue to live in the world of time and space. Faith is always embodied in particular social forms, cultural rituals, economic relationships and political structures. Very often these forms of cultural expression overwhelm the spiritual essence they are embracing. Without realizing it, Christians frequently find themselves worshiping the form—be it money, power or the nation – rather than the spirit these forms are to embody. For the Christian, the Church is the primary point of identity. As the living body of Christ, Christians gather as a community of faith to remember God’s acts in history, to confess their sins, to offer praise to God. The mere fact of the church’s existence – as a social body committed to a cause that transcends social, economic, and political boundaries – is a proclamation that Christ’s reign is breaking into the world.

4. God’s love is Good News for the world. The gospel is good news not only for those who have accepted God’s love and forgiveness, but also for those who are still living in fear, thinking that reality is grounded in selfishness and coercion. Thus, Christ’s way of peace is genuine “news” for those who are trapped in a worldview of violence, and it is genuinely “good” because it invites each person to a life of trust and love, grounded in the generous love of God.

5. We are participants in God’s invitation to Shalom. The invitation to become a Christian begins with a change of heart, a new way of looking at reality itself. But that change of heart is truly meaningful only to the extent that it engages us in the concrete and tangible acts of Shalom. As members of Christ’s body and as citizens of many countries, each of us is called to participate in God’s plan for humans to live together in harmony – honoring the dignity of each person, celebrating the many expressions of God’s image, promoting the cause of peace and justice and in all things “seeking the welfare of the city.”

For all of these reasons, Christians should choose against war.

The adventurous journey of faith offers no guarantees about how the world will react to the Christian witness to compassion, vulnerability and love. But we can claim the power of the resurrection. We can celebrate even now the fact that death will not have the final word. And we can testify with joy that God’s love is indeed stronger than our fear.

Excerpted from Choosing Against War: A Christian View. Copyright by Good Books ( Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

John D. Roth, who earned a doctorate in early modern European history from the University of Chicago, joined the Goshen College faculty in 1988; he serves as chair of the history department and is editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review, a scholarly journal focusing on Anabaptists, Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish. Choosing Against War: A Christian View is available at bookstores or by contacting Good Books at 800-762-7171; order online and read the introduction to this book and other information, at


Military mom and Goshen College peacemaker meet over coffee, common ground

By Jodi Hochstedler

It began with an impassioned letter to the editor by a soldier's mother who was fed up with the "local pacifist rhetoric" in Goshen and the lack of support she felt for her son.

Goshen resident Dana Schmucker wrote: "I would ask all of you to stop and consider what your harsh words in the paper mean to a soldier who is sitting in a remote location reading his hometown newspaper and seeing such a painful lack of support for our troops. While you enjoy your holiday season, please have some compassion for those of us who won't be together for the holidays. We would prefer your prayers rather than your criticism." (Nov. 7, 2002 ? "Goshen News")

In her peace courses at Goshen College, Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, associate professor of peace, justice and conflict studies assigns her students the exercise of listening to "the other" ? someone with the opposite views as themselves. "I read the letter and I just knew what I had to do," Carolyn said.

A day later, letter-writer Schmucker received a phone call from Schrock-Shenk, who has organized local war protests, inviting her to meet over coffee so she could understand more fully why the pacifist letters were so painful to read and to hear more about Nick, Schmucker's son serving in Afghanistan. Schrock-Shenk told Schmucker she committed herself to not trying to convince her of her point of view and she wouldn't even tell her point of view on a war with Iraq if she wasn't asked. Schmucker agreed to meet.

Nearly half of the two hour meeting was spent getting to know each other and connecting personally. Then Schrock-Shenk asked Schmucker how she experienced the letters and the anti-war movement as a military mom. Schrock-Shenk very quickly realized that the peace protests need to make the link stronger that opposition to war is actually a support of American troops abroad, not just a support of Iraqi civilians.

After sharing with each other and recognizing that they are both mothers of sons, they share religious connections and both want peace for the world; the women decided to write a joint letter to the editor. The two wrote about their different views on this war, their commonalities and how talking with each other has "stripped away layers of assumptions and stereotypes."

"We knew that we were on opposite sides when we agreed to meet for coffee, but talking felt like the right thing to both of us. ... What we both know, at a very deep level, is that we want Nick, and the others like him, to come home safely. ... We believe that our God of love is present with each one, all the time, no matter where they are or which side of a war they are on...

We will continue to respond to the current situation in ways that we feel called to respond, but we will do so with some differences since our meetings. It is our hope that by writing this letter, we can encourage others to see that it is possible to "agree to disagree" without disrespect or malice. ...

I (Dana) will respect and understand in a new way, those who want to prevent this war. I would ask them to remember our sons and daughters who are trying to do the right thing and who are risking their lives to do so. I believe our troops need to know that we love them and support them, whether or not we support the war in which they are fighting. ...

I (Carolyn) will [continue to oppose this impending war] with a new awareness of how much pain and fear and love military members and their families experience. Nick and his family, and others like them, will be part of my awareness in a new way as I respond to my personal call to peacemaking. I understand more deeply that, at bottom, we want so many of the same things: peace, security, a world of promise for our children. It is these concerns that lead me to oppose this and other wars." (Nov. 24, 2002 - "Goshen News")

The response both women received from the community has "only been positive." One community member, Diane Hertzler, followed up their letter with one of her own and referred to their joint work as the "most important letter of the year."

As Schrock-Shenk recently planned another local peace demonstration, she wrote Schmucker to ask what she would think about the wording on a sign she wanted to hold: "Support our troops, oppose this war." Schmucker wrote back to say it wouldn't offend her, or Nick, at all.
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